Skyrim preview: Sky's the limit

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim looks superb. I don't think I'll be alone in saying so -- Skyrim was the only title presented at Bethesda's "BFG 2011" press event in Park City, Utah last week to elicit a round of applause.

The hands-off demonstration began with the player character, Dovahkiin (Dragonborn) strolling down a detailed mountain path in Skyrim, the northernmost province of The Elder Scrolls' fictional continent of Tamriel. The game takes place some 200 years after the events of Oblivion, and dragons have mysteriously emerged in the world once again.%Gallery-121459% The demo started peacefully enough, though, as Dovahkiin walked over to a grouping of incredibly detailed flowers, picked one and moved on. He stopped to show the audience a tumbling brook with beautifully rendered fish jumping their way upstream. We were also briefly treated to the third-person perspective in the game, which was a stunning improvement over past attempts at the option in Oblivion and Fallout 3. Instead of appearing to float over the ground, Dovahkiin actually looks as if he is firmly planted onto the earth.

The inventory system has also seen design improvements. Once pulled up, the players scrolls left for the map or right for items, and to view skills, you look up -- literally, into the heavens. Classic RPG skill trees have been replaced with constellations, with each representative of a different play-style and depicting a unique progression layout. The map is actually a zoomed-out look at the gameworld itself, rendered in 3D and incredibly detailed. For finding specific towns or mountains this is very helpful.

The size of Skyrim's gameworld is said to be comparable to Oblivion's, but each area is significantly more detailed and interactive. As far as character progression, we were told to expect a leveling system similar to Fallout 3's, and, in general, the game will scale along with the player up to the Level 25 cap. Also, the skills have been simplified to three categories: magicka, health and stamina to make the RPG elements slightly more streamlined.

Continuing on his mountain stroll, Dovahkiin finally ran into an ugly baddie that he dispatched easily enough with his sword and shield. After the enemy's health was hacked away, we were surprised when Dovahkiin grabbed the creature's shoulder and ran his sword into its soft belly. Later, I saw another death animation, in which the player slammed his axe into the top of a goblin's skull, and we can be sure there are going to be dozens more of these satisfying and stylish finishing touches.

In a brilliant move, the player's primary battle actions are mapped to the right and left triggers of the gamepad, each controlling one of Dovahkiin's hands. This is reminiscent of BioShock, as one hand can be used for magic while the other wields a weapon -- but the dual-wielding combinations can get more strategic. You can swap out your weapon for a shield to create a more defense-oriented caster, or supercharge your magic attack, say, by equipping fire in both hands to toast the yeti-like ice creature that wants to make a meal of you.

Dovahkiin eventually reached a small town, and we watched his various interactions with the townsfolk. The NPCs were chopping wood, farming and generally acting like real people, instead of just standing about, waiting for the player to approach them. A lot of these activities can be taken up by the player, too, as jobs appear in every town. More nefarious role-players might instead opt to sabotage a town's lumber mill, the sort of action that is said to have a noticeably negative effect on a town's economy. Of course, towns are also a starting point for the game's many side-quests.

To help out one NPC, Dovahkiin had to trek to a mountain cave and recover a stolen object. He was joined by a talkative NPC escort, but the player was not bound to listen and pushed on ahead only to happen upon a random encounter with a dragon! We were assured that this event had not been not scripted, and the player wisely ran into the safety of the nearby cave.

Inside, the player's use of stealth, combined with a bow and arrow, made picking off unsuspecting enemies look like diabolical fun. A helpful feature for the less skilled archers among us (read: me) is a sort of slow-motion mechanic for shooting, reminiscent of Red Dead Redemption's "Dead Eye" targeting system. This is actually a perk and thus upgradeable.

At the end of the cave crawl, Dovahkiin fought a wizardly creature, and we got to see his true power: "Dragon Shouts." These are essentially upgradeable abilities that turn the tide of battle, demonstrated for us with the power to slow time to a standstill. Dovahkiin made short work of the mini-boss.

As he exited the cave, a dragon swooped down upon Dovahkiin in a dramatic, cliff-hanger ending to the demo. I was left with the same sort of chill I felt after being spotted by a Deathclaw in Fallout 3.

It seems that in designing Skyrim, the team at Bethesda sat around saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if we put this in the game?" and then proceeded to do so at most opportunities. Even if the game didn't look as good as it does, I would still be excited to experiment with the numerous abilities, combos and combat possibilities therein. With six more months to go before launch, I can only imagine what else might be tossed into this one.

Nationally acclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been covering video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history, and, of course, anything with buttons.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.